Saturday, November 26, 2016

Public Cloud or Private, that is the Question!

"The reason that God was able to create the world in seven days is that he didn't have to worry about the installed base."
Enzo Torresi. 1945-2016.

“I consider the bicycle to be the most dangerous thing to life and property ever invented. The gentlest of horses are afraid of it.”
Samuel G. Hough, General Manager of the Monarch Line of steam ships. July 14, 1881.

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1.5 tons.”
Popular Mechanics. March, 1949.

A few days ago I published a blog offering career advice based on some questions I’ve been getting from former colleagues. Interestingly, the part that garnered the most comments and feedback was about public vs. private clouds and shrink wrapped on-prem software vs. cloud based services:

Run, don't walk, away from any company recruiting you to work on shrink wrapped on-prem software. The days of the private cloud are numbered as are the days of legacy shrink wrap software that needs to be installed, maintained, and managed by an IT department. All of those companies are busy trying to figure out how to move their software to the public cloud.

If you are working for a hardware company, I feel for you. As the industry figures out how to offer anything-and-everything-as-a-service and as hardware becomes more and more commoditized, it’s no wonder that hardware companies are struggling - even the ones who are trying to “add value” with their “differentiated software stacks”. Proprietary software tied to a specific vendor’s hardware is a recipe for obsolescence. No, thank you.

The last company I worked for, Cloudflare, offers DDoS-protection-as-a-service, Firewall-as-service, DNS-as-a-service, Load-Balancing-as-service, Failover-as-service, Caching-as-service, you name it. Just take out your credit card, go to their website, and you can sign up for any of those services in just a few minutes. No need to buy any hardware or maintain a random collection of servers and routers and switches and disk arrays in your own data center, no need to hire an IT staff to manage aforementioned infrastructure. Oh wait. Did I say take out your credit card? Never mind. They offer most of these services for free. Why would I want to run my own data center full of servers and stale software, again?

"Private cloud" is just a euphemism for “IT department unwilling to let go of the past”. Even companies in heavily regulated industries are busy trying to figure out how to get out of running their own data centers. The public cloud is the future, no question in my mind. And the only way to win there is to be “cloud native”.

I was asked to expand on my comments and justify my rationale, hence this update, seen primarily from the enterprise customer’s point of view.

I believe the companies that will thrive in the next generation of computing, in the cloud era, are not the ones that will sell you hardware, then sell you the operating system to run on that hardware, then sell you the app to run on that OS, then sell you the backend database needed to scale that app, then sell you the management solutions to manage that app, then sell you the backup solution that integrates “deeply” with that app, then sell you the identity solution that also integrates “deeply” with that app as well as the management solution, then sell you the load balancers and firewall to put in front of that app, then sell you … I can keep going but I think you get the idea.

Don't you see that the minute you buy a piece of hardware and put it in your data center, you start building a bespoke stack and that nothing you do will ever solve that problem nor make it cheaper or easier to maintain? Every step you take from that moment on only adds to the complexity of managing that piece of hardware sitting in your data center.

Similarly, when you buy a piece of shrink-wrapped software - any software, be it an operating system or a firewall appliance or an HR application or an Oracle database - you are not buying just that piece of software. You are buying into an ecosystem that will, sooner or later, become a ball and chain forcing you to continue to invest in it.

Worse yet, that software running in your data center is guaranteed to be stale the minute you deploy it. Much like a car that loses a huge chunk of its value as soon as you drive it off the dealer lot, shrink wrapped software, on-perm software, by definition starts rotting the minute you start using it. The problem is that it takes us (let’s be generous and say) three to five years to design and build the various components needed to get your bespoke solution working and it takes you at least a year to do the integration and qualification testing needed to get the end to end solution working in your environment.

And during those three to five years, the rest of the industry has moved forward by leaps and bounds with respect to best practices in reliability, availability, security, and maintainability - just to name a few “abilities”. By the time a feature, any “enterprise” feature, makes it through the sausage factory, it must be designed, implemented, and tested - not just by one engineering team or even by just one company but by an entire slew of companies.  Worse yet, by the time you’ve run the gauntlet and gotten all the various pieces of hardware and software working together, it’s already time to install patches and service packs and agents and plugins and connectors and start the next round of upgrades. In essence, you sign up to be the system integrator and you have to keep the beast fed, all in order to pull together a solution that is unique to your company when viewed end to end.

You don't believe me about “bespoke stacks”? Try comparing your Exchange Server implementation with that of your competitor across the street. He has Exchange 2003 SP3 running on Dell servers with EMC Symmetrix and Windows Server 2008 SP2, integrated with Active Directory for identity and Digital Rights Management add-on for better security. He is running it on vSphere 6.0 and using OpenStack for management. His backup solution is Symantec NetBackup 6.3 and he is using a four node Cluster. He is also using F5 for load balancing and Cisco ASA for Firewall. Except for that one division that came through an acquisition. They have a different version of Exchange running on HP servers with NetApp filers and HP OpenView...

Your setup, let’s just say, is slightly different.

Any wonder none of those vendors can replicate your problem when you call them at 3:00 AM Saturday morning when you can't restore from a daily backup or when your perimeter is breached and your emails show up on Wikileaks? These are just half a dozen variables in the hardware and software soup (dare I say cesspool?)  that is running in your “private cloud enabled data center”. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of such variables in each data center running shrink wrapped on-prem “Enterprise class” software. Each of those components has gone through rigorous testing but I can pretty much guarantee they have never been put together in exactly the combination that you have chosen. Every time you change a single variable, you double the complexity and the testing matrix for the companies involved.

Every single enterprise company out there is running a bespoke software stack - nay, a dozen bespoke software stacks - in their data centers, one for each enterprise application. The example above just covered email. Add to that HR and CRM and Finance and a dozen other stacks. And every one of those stacks, I claim, offers less reliability, availability, security, performance, manageability, and worse overall TCO than any of the current generation of public clouds and comparable SaaS solutions.

Here's a simple analogy: If I ask you to take me from point A to point B, would you take out your phone and call for an Uber or would you start ordering vehicle parts so you can assemble a car to fulfill the request? Even if you choose to take the latter route, I bet you wouldn’t order parts from a dozen different car companies. Then why are you doing that when you want to run the most critical business apps, the ones that your company depends on? On-prem shrink wrapped software is evil. Private clouds solve only a part of the problem but don’t address the fundamental issues I’ve described above. Hybrid clouds? Those don't even really exist.

What I've said here is probably obvious to most industry pundits. What amazes me is that so many multi-billion dollar companies continue to employ thousands of engineers and build on top of the same ancient delivery model. Once they’ve sold you all the bits and pieces, they also promise that they will “hide” the complexity by giving you “universal management tools” and “one pane of glass visibility”.

At the end of the day, every piece of software you install and maintain in that ecosystem requires plugins and patches and “agents” and “connectors” in order to integrate with the other pieces of software. The complexity increases exponentially every time you add one more variable, all the way from hardware to operating system to applications to storage system to firewall to identity system to backup system to management solution to … you name it. And you are the system integrator. I guarantee no one else in the world is running the same exact mix of hardware and software that you are.

If you can find a single enterprise company IT department that offers the same levels of availability, reliability, security, and performance as the public cloud, I would urge you to short their stock. Because they are obviously spending way too much on their IT budget instead of their core business. The reality is that most Enterprise IT organizations make compromises based on budget constraints, time constraints, political constraints, lack of information, and often even the whims of their personnel. “I absolutely hate Microsoft and refuse to buy any of their software.” These same IT organizations also change their requirements every once in awhile - as disruptive industry trends catch up and their associated costs drop, as they go through acquisitions or mergers, as new CIOs come and go, as solution providers go out of business, and for a dozen other reasons. So you end up with spaghetti in the data center. You end up with a dozen miscellaneous unpatched operating systems on “appliances” because, of course as we all know, “appliances don’t count because I don't have to worry about the OS.” You end up with a dozen competing management solutions that promise to make your life easier but, in fact, often only add to expenses without delivering sufficient ROI.

At best, you end up building a system that works well during normal operations but falls apart as soon as any single component hits a problem. Any such deployment doesn't just have a Single Point of Failure. It has many Single Points of Failure. Compare that to the current generation best of breed public clouds that are designed from the ground up for redundancy, designed for availability, designed for maintainability. Designed for Failure. Remember that these are enterprise application deployments we are talking about - ones that your business depends on. Which environment would you rather depend on?

Hosted solutions are a step in the right direction as they remove several variables from the on-prem equation. The right long term solution is to re-architect all these applications for the cloud; to make them “cloud native”, not to try to use a forklift to move the legacy monolithic applications to the cloud because your IT department is “comfortable with the current tools”. it’s hard to let go of legacy but I argue it’s always better to understand the core requirements for that application, for that workload, and find the closest commercially available SaaS solution on the market. I don't even have to do the math to show you that such an answer is always the right one in the long run based not just on CapEx and OpEx savings but also in terms of overall service availability and reduced attack surface. But the IT department is usually the last one to tell you that. Their jobs are not best served by that answer. Nor are the hardware vendors. Nor are the database companies. Nor are the operating system companies. Nor are the application providers. Nor are the management solution providers.

The promise of the cloud is obvious. Utility computing. Simplicity. Fewer variables. We standardize on one piece of hardware, one operating system, one set of management tools. And, for all intents and purposes, we will always run the latest version of software. And we will offer you an SLA - which means we have to constantly monitor service levels, something your IT department is probably not doing. And We will do immediate postmortems and Root Cause Analysis in the case of service failure and share the findings with the public. In such a world, the fewer variables the better. Choice is the enemy of simplicity and reliability.

Seems obvious. Yet, a lot of people are still hanging on to the old delivery model. Every excuse is used to perpetuate the old world: compatibility, regulatory compliance,, training costs, budgetary constraints, etc. That model (bespoke stacks running in your data center) made sense ten or twenty years ago when we didn't have public clouds offering utility computing, when high speed connectivity didn't exist, when we didn't have such demanding service availability requirements. It makes no sense in the new world.

One other thing that these companies seem to miss is that customers usually make decisions based on applications, not on infrastructure. Updating and re-architecting an enterprise application (email or HR or finance, for example) is an arduous multi-year journey. Enterprise companies make these decisions one application at a time and they do so infrequently - for good reasons. If I'm looking to upgrade my aging Exchange email infrastructure, I want to look into all the new architectures that have come along since Exchange was architected over twenty years ago. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense and be a lot cheaper in the long run to switch to gmail, for example, than some Frankenstein Exchange solution virtualized to run in a VM so we can continue to run Exchange 2003 SP9 and back it up with Backup Exec 3.2.5b?

The right answer is not to perpetuate the old model but rather to cap investment in existing on-prem solutions and to implement tools that help squeeze every ounce of value from your sunk cost in the existing on-prem infrastructure while re-architecting those applications for the public cloud if they are core to your business or outsourcing them to SaaS providers if they are not.

Seen through this lens, a whole slew of companies are doomed in the long term - unless they reinvent themselves. It is just as hard for these companies to do so as it is for their enterprise customers to move off existing infrastructure and solutions. Too much inertia, too many engineers and executives who are happy making incremental improvements to existing products rather than rethinking their value prop and business model. Very few companies have been able to successfully maneuver through such a transition in the past. Adobe seems to be a good recent example - a company that went from delivering shrink wrapped software running on your home PC to a cloud based service without losing a large percentage of its customer base in the transition to the new architecture. It was able to do so because it drew a clear line in the sand and stopped supporting their “legacy” install base pretty quickly. This is an extremely hard thing for a company to do - walking away from its install base, its cash cow, its revenue stream - and committing itself to a disruptive new business model. The classic Innovator's Dilemma.

As I was trying to say earlier: the companies that will survive in this new generation will be the ones that help you re-architect your application so it fits better to the cloud world, not ones that keep selling you solutions for the old world. The journey to the cloud needs to happen application by application, not company by company. The trick, of course, is to avoid making the same mistakes again in the cloud, swapping one bespoke brittle proprietary stack for another hidden behind an API. That, I’m afraid, will have to be a topic for another day.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Frozen Popsicle Man Takes to the Road: A Curmudgeonly Travel Narrative

“Wednesday, November 28, 1520, we debouched from the strait, engulfing ourselves in the Pacific Sea. We were three months and twenty days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that has been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the mainyard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain, and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on top of the embers, and so ate them; and often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece, and even then we could not get them. The gums of both the lower and the upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so they could not eat under any circumstances therefore died. Nineteen men died from that sickness.”
Antonio Pigafetta. First Voyage Around the World (1519-1522): An Account of Magellan's Expedition.

“Elwood: It's 106 miles to Chicago, we got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it's dark... and we're wearing sunglasses.
Jake: Hit it.”
           Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi. Blues Brothers.

“Lester Siegel: You don’t have a better bad idea than this?
Tony Mendez: This is the best bad idea we have, sir. So far.”
               Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck. Argo.

A few days ago, on a whim, I decided to take a brief vacation. You see, the retired life is so hard that I need a break from it. Seriously, though, here’s what actually happened.

Over the past few days, I went on a few too many chilly rainy rides up the mountain. You don't have an appreciation for what that means if you haven't “enjoyed” going downhill for twenty minutes non-stop at speeds of up to forty miles an hour while getting pelted in the face with thousands of cold liquid missiles coming at you diagonally. As you hurtle towards your death down the slippery road, you also get to “enjoy” feeling that your toes are frozen solid, that your nose is dripping, and that you haven't actually felt your fingers for the past hour. The fact that you just spent an hour climbing the mountain and are sweating profusely just means you are even more wet, cold, and miserable. At this point, you are basically a frozen Popsicle.

Of course, none of your extremities come even close to your rear end when it comes to pain. Try sitting on a road bike for three to four hours a day and you'll know what I mean. If that's not masochistic enough for you, try having a flat tire in the middle of the aforementioned rain storm while riding in some Godforsaken nowhere woods. As you stand there soaking wet and try to fix the flat with numb fingers, you have plenty of time to daydream about sunnier days. Ah, how I love biking! It's good for you, I keep telling myself.

Anyway, I looked at my iPhone Weather app and saw that the Bay Area was up for at least another week of cold and rainy weather. Being the resourceful guy that I am, I jumped on Expedia after checking the weather reports for half a dozen places “close enough” to the Bay Area for a quick two or three day trip. I settled for Palm Springs. Warm and sunny with temperatures in the high seventies, close to Joshua Tree National Park and the Salton Sea. I can go for quick day hikes and maybe even drag my camera along for some desert photography. Quick one hour flight to LAX, hop in a car for a couple of hours and we’re there. Brilliant. I even patted myself on the back for the quick thinking before asking my wife if she wanted to join me. She declined. She is a wise woman, as will soon become obvious. I also pinged a few friends to see if they wanted to join me. But, they were all either working or had other obligations. Never mind. I'll go it alone. How bad can it be?

At this point in the story, I should mention that I absolutely refuse to sit in real restaurants and wait for food when I'm traveling alone. I just feel so self conscious sitting there alone for anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour. I wouldn't know what to do with myself. It just feels too weird. So, when I travel alone, by and large, I eat on the run. Anything to get the excruciating ordeal out of the way as quickly as possible. Fast food, burritos, fish and chips at a pub, slice of pizza at the airport, anything that does not require sitting down alone at a table in a restaurant. For some reason, sitting at a bar is permissible but an actual table is not. I don’t understand the logic either. Needless to say, this aversion (it’s involuntary, I can't help it) also makes many magical destinations much less enjoyable when I'm forced to travel solo.

I booked nice midday flights so I would get a chance to bike in the morning before jumping on the plane. I find that helps with the guilt of knowing that I wouldn't get nearly as much exercise for the next few days. No, thank you. I'm not taking my bike to Palm Springs. It's not worth the hassle. It's just a quick one hour flight.

So, I got up at the usual time, did a quick hour or so of biking and took a shower, ready to go to the airport. That oughta make up for all the junk food I’ll be eating. Just as I was getting ready to leave, I received a text message from the airline that the flight had been cancelled due to “weather problems in San Francisco”. Hmmm… the weather out the window actually looked pretty good. Just a little rain and wind. Nothing special. I even went on a quick rant about Californians who didn't know how to run an airport. “If this kind of weather results in flight cancellations, then they’d have to shut down the entire airport for six months out of the year in Canada and Denmark.” Later, I came to find from other passengers that the plane had had engine problems, too. The airline just chose to blame weather publicly. Not our fault, bad weather.

Anyway, at least I got the notification in time and didn't spend several hours along with thousands of other travelers walking around the airport like zombies. Instead, I jumped online and booked myself on the next available flight out, still arriving in LA before 4:00 PM. Once again I patted myself on the back and congratulated myself for saving the day. Well, the next few hours were spent reading a succession of text messages informing me that this new flight, alas, was being delayed - in half hour increments. To make a long story short, the plane finally took off at 5:00 PM and deposited us in LA before six. Just in time for rush hour traffic. Joy!

It’s amazing how many multi-car pileups Angelinos get into on a regular evening commute. By the time I got to the hotel in Palm Springs, it was 9:00 PM. An entire day wasted getting from the Bay Area to Palm Springs. I could have driven there faster. Three hours, my ass! We have made air travel, and travel in general, so inefficient and painful that it almost makes me give up on travel altogether. I'm sure I'll have a similar day long ordeal going back home. A “quick” trip shouldn't require two full days of travel. I used to actually enjoy travel but am finding it increasingly difficult to justify it given all the hassles involved. In hindsight, I should have booked the flight directly to Palm Springs but that severely limits the number of available flights and is not much better. Okay, maybe it’s not as bad as the days of Magellan and urine soaked biscuits but we seem to have massively regressed in the past few years when it comes to travel. As an aside, did you notice that that entry was dated 1520 and that the trip didn’t end until two years later? Yikes!

Now, lying in bed, I was too agitated to sleep. New bed, noisy air conditioner, combined with stress from the sheer stupidity and waste of the previous twelve or so hours. So I lay there thinking about the next month. In my infinite wisdom, I somehow committed to five more similar “quick” trips coming up between now and Christmas. Two for business, three for family. Great job, Ben. Right in the middle of the holiday season and the worst time of year to travel. By the time I fell asleep, feeling sorry for myself, it was 2:00 AM. And, of course, I was up bright and early at 5:00 AM like every day at home. I’d forgotten to shut off my biological alarm. Oh great. Now that's what I call a vacation.

So I rolled around the bed for a couple of hours before getting up to go to Joshua Tree National Park for a hike and some photography. I have to admit I wasn't up for it. I hiked a couple of the trails and took a few pictures. It was a beautiful place and I enjoyed it but, it seems, in my rush to book the trip, I hadn't bothered to think about the fact that flowers bloom in the spring, November is not the best time of year to go there for photography.

By 3:00 PM, I was back at the hotel, in a new much quieter room overlooking the golf course and a man made lagoon. I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the poolside bar enjoying a beer and the sunshine and writing this text. Let's face it. This is why I came here. To get out of the rain and cold and to get a few more days of sunshine and warm weather and relatively clean mountain air before settling in for the cold winter. The hiking and photography were just excuses to fool myself into thinking I wasn't slacking.

Did I mention that three of those trips next month are to Seattle, Toronto, and New York? Brrrr. The older I get, the more I need sunshine and warm weather. My old bones and joints prefer it to freezing rain and forty mile an hour winds. I've paid my dues for years in cold and inhospitable climes. To those of you still living in those kinds of places, I have to ask: “Why?!?” I guess I'm getting old. I'm actually starting to understand people who move to Arizona and Florida. Now, there's a scary thought.

I was determined to get a good night of sleep so I went to bed early the second day and managed to fall asleep by midnight, only to be awakened at 3:30 AM by the shrill sound of the fire alarm in my room. Why is it that fire alarm batteries only die in the middle of the night? Somehow, that doesn't seem right, statistically speaking. It took quite a while for someone to come and replace the batteries. By then, my ears were ringing so hard that any thought of sleep had to be abandoned. Just call me “Sleepless in Palm Springs”.

The Salton Sea? I enjoyed the solitude but there isn't a whole lot to see other than water and dead fish. I was told I could drive another hour to a wildlife refuge if I wanted to see birds but I was too tired from lack of sleep to do another two hours of driving. I have no reason to believe the return trip tomorrow will be any less painful than the one coming out here. The sunshine has been great but let’s just say I'm ready to go back to being Frozen Popsicle Man on my bicycle until the next adventure.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Please Change My Password When I Go on Vacation

“The regulations read, ‘The supervisor and compositor shall be flogged thirty times for an error per chapter; the printer shall be flogged thirty times for bad impression, either too dark or too light, of one character per chapter.’ This helps explain both the reputation for accuracy earned by the earliest Korean imprints and the difficulty that Koreans found in recruiting printers.”
Daniel J. Boorstin. The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself.

“I live the life I love
And I just love the life I live.”
Muddy Waters. I Love The Life I Live, I Live The Life I Love.

"Once [Sir Isaac Newton] inserted a bodkin—a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather—into his eye socket and rubbed it around 'betwixt my eye and the bone, near to the backside of my eye as I could', just to see what would happen.”
Bill Bryson. A Short History of Nearly Everything.

I've now been officially “semi-retired” for six weeks. In my case, that means I no longer have a day job. I am trying to avoid brain rot by staying engaged with the industry: advising a few startups and sitting on the Board of Directors of one. But I've otherwise given up the day to day office hours, the daily commute, and more importantly, the responsibilities of a full-time job.

Six weeks in, I have to tell you I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. I feel more refreshed and relaxed, I spend 3-4 hours a day biking, have dropped fifteen pounds in weight, my chronic back pain is under control, I'm in a better mood all the time, I sleep a full eight hours a night, I spend more time with family and friends, I am more patient and reasonable with people, I am just basically a happier human being. Highly recommended.

I don't mean to gloat. I know that would be mean since most people out there reading this still need to hold a day job and collect a paycheck. My main point is that, after thirty five years of working like a madman, I feel I'm just now realizing what life is supposed to be like. And it feels glorious.

I realize now that I have obsessed over work to the exclusion of all else for the past thirty five years. Okay, I knew this all along but I never stopped to think what it really meant. It has left scars not only on my life but also on the lives of those around me.  It is only now that I recognize the obsession with work, the twenty hour days, the lack of sleep and relaxation, all of it - was taking a huge physical and psychological toll on me. I loved working and work seemed to love me back. So all else be damned. It's a virtuous cycle (or a vicious one, depending on your point of view). The more you work, the more successful you are. The more successful you are, the harder you have to work.

So, what's my point? Barring the ability for most common folk to quit their jobs and start exercising like madmen, what am I proposing?

Take vacations. No. I mean really take vacations. Insist on taking real vacations. Ones where you unplug. Ones where you cannot connect with work except for emergencies. Ideally for four weeks or more per year. It should be a law enforced by congress that we should lose all access to our work related email and chat accounts when we go on vacation. I wish employers would just change the employee’s password for the duration of their vacation. If they need you, they will call. We have your number. Don't call us, we’ll call you.

I say this as I remember the last vacation I had with my family while still working. Last year, my daughter and son-in-law gave us (my wife and I) the gift of a vacation in Mexico. They spent five days with us in Puerto Vallarta. It was a lovely trip and we all had a great time but it was two days into the trip that I realized something. I had spent more time on my laptop and on the phone, working, than I had with my family. Every five minutes I had to check my email. Check a dozen Hipchat channels to see if there are any disasters in progress at work. Dial in a couple of meetings every day. Check Twitter to see if there are any major DDoS attacks in progress or any customer issues that need immediate attention. You get the idea.

Of course, the bigger problem is that even when we are not looking at the screen, our brains are working on the most recent set of problems we just heard about in an email chain or on a call. And we call this a vacation? No wonder we return to work more exhausted than when we left.

Business trips are even worse. On my most recent business trip to London last year, I found myself awake every night until 6 AM conversing with folks back in California, falling asleep at 7 AM for a couple of hours, before jumping up to go in for the day with the London office. Of course, you are also likely to catch a nasty bug on the flight out. Or, more likely, on the flight back when your immune system is weak from jet lag and sleepless nights. The flights used to be the only time when you could unplug. No more. I've spent entire fourteen hour flights arguing with colleagues - in real time. Thanks to In-flight wifi.

Of course, I realize that I'm describing my own personal problems. My obsession with work. But I suspect it resonates with a few of you out there. What I realize now is that my brain was on overdrive. Non-stop. Twenty Four Seven. And that can take a toll on you over time. Physically, mentally, and socially. The least we can do is shut it down - I mean really shut it down - once in a while. Hence the proposal for the vacation thingy.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Whiplash: What Half of America Feels Right Now!

‘“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
"I don't much care where –"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”’
Lewis Carroll. Alice in Wonderland.

“We are all faced throughout our lives with agonizing decisions. Moral choices. Some are on a grand scale. Most of these choices are on lesser points. But! We define ourselves by the choices we have made. We are in fact the sum total of our choices. Events unfold so unpredictably, so unfairly, human happiness does not seem to have been included in the design of creation. It is only we, with our capacity to love, that give meaning to the indifferent universe. And yet, most human beings seem to have the ability to keep trying, and even to find joy from simple things like their family, their work, and from the hope that future generations might understand more.”
Woody Allen. Crimes and Misdemeanors.
“I say you know it's funny I think we were on the same boat back in 1694.”
Indigo Girls. Shame on You. Shaming of the Sun.

I have been vocal on political topics in my blog in the past so I hope you will forgive me for the addition of these thoughts on the current situation.

I recently called for a rewriting of the US Constitution, call it version 2.0, updated for the modern times we inhabit, free of rules designed for Eighteenth century Agrarian America. Maybe version 1.1 would be more appropriate terminology.

I've also complained bitterly (to Mr. Obama, no less) when I thought the US was enacting xenophobic laws under his watch: HR-158, the so-called “Visa Waiver Program Improvement and Terrorist Travel Prevention Act of 2015”, a law that allows profiling of our own citizens when crossing the border - based on national origin - if you are from a Middle Eastern country. Never mind that each of the countries in the Middle East is a mishmash of Moslems, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Atheists, Baha'is, and the adherents of a dozen other belief systems. Never mind that the region encompasses everything from Turks to Arabs to Persians to Armenians to a dozen other ethnicities. We now have a law on our books that legally permits profiling them as they enter the country, coming back from an international trip. Never mind that they have lived in this country for their entire adult lives (or perhaps even born here). Never mind that they are, by and large, hard working tax paying law abiding citizens. How do we end up with such laws on our books?

Replace Middle East with Italy or Ireland or Japan or China or India or any one of a dozen other world regions over the past two hundred years and you are guaranteed to find similar experiences by each of those ethnicities. If they weren't profiled at the border, they were rounded up into internment camps, they were used as indentured labor to build the country's infrastructure (first the one in the physical world and now the one in the virtual world), they were shunned and ostracized as outsiders. But every one of those ethnicities is now broadly accepted in America and has found a way to not just integrate with, but also to change, the culture of America for the better.

The Middle Easterners and Mexicans being vilified and discriminated against today are a resilient bunch. They are already merging with the rest of American society at a faster pace than previous ethnicities. The Japanese had it worse. The Irish had it worse. The Chinese had it worse. The African Americans had it worse. The list goes on. No one said it would be easy. But it’s the only way forward.

But, meanwhile, what has this extreme shift to the right done with American politics? Is it any wonder that the republicans were emboldened by how far they could push partisan politics after passing this bill? Is it any wonder that the same congress bold enough to pass xenophobic laws would have no trouble holding up the nomination of a Supreme Court justice for an entire year? We can complain about Donald Trump all we want, but the problem is bigger than Trump.

So, to all those of you out there that are feeling dazed and confused right now, walking around asking yourselves “What just happened?”, “How did I misunderstand America so much?”, I have only this to offer. I know it feels like half the country just experienced the biggest whiplash of their lives. I know it feels like you were rushing headlong to meet the future only to be brought to a screeching halt by the other half of the country. I know it feels like you were sucker punched. I know you feel like you are following Alice down the rabbit hole. I know you are afraid of a dozen catastrophic scenarios. I am, too, but I think we will be alright.

Many times in the past, we have swung to extremes of left and right. I admit this one is more bizarre than any of the ones in the past but I blame the media and the internet for that. Most of our presidents, including the founding fathers, had sordid personal lives. Yet they managed, by and large, to move us forward as a country. We just didn't have the Internet and Wikileaks and Facebook and Twitter yet so we didn’t get as clear a view of their personal lives and thoughts as we do now. I bet the next election will be even more contentious. And every election after that, too.

Please don't read my comments above as any kind of an endorsement for Donald Trump. I abhor everything the man stands for. And I bet most other Americans do, too. But, by concentrating on Trump, we are missing the point. We are personifying our complaints about “the other side” and ignoring the issues behind the vote, the whiplash to our progressive ideals expressed by half of America. Even more importantly, we whitewash the fact that we allowed this to happen. We created this. We, the people. These are our representatives in congress. We elected them. Even after all the petulant behavior, we just voted most of them back into office again!

Much will be written about massive external influences on this election cycle (Russia, FBI, lobbyists, dark money, social media, fake news, etc). But, once again, we are missing the point. We are blaming others for what we, as a people, have created. And we are the only ones who can fix it.

This may all seem like too much doom and gloom but, to be honest, I'm actually optimistic about the future of America. We are moving in the right direction - in the long run. We have become a more inclusive country, we are more prosperous, crime is down, the better angels of our nature are winning the war. The government of the people, by the people, will eventually do the right thing. Over the long term. But, for that to happen, we the people have to engage. We have to get out of our cocoons and participate in the process. Not just the process of electing the president once every four years, but also the process of governing our country on a day to day basis.

This picture is by far the most optimistic one I have seen in this election cycle:


Just remember that. We will take this country, kicking and screaming, into the future. The next four years will hopefully only be a bump on the road to progress.

If you are not happy with what is going on, then please engage. Here are few concrete things you can do:

  1. Sign this petition to support the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. As far as I can tell, it is the simplest, most obvious, way to get rid of the electoral system. And it doesn't even require approval from the federal government. I'm tired of arguing about why we should continue to use a system that was designed over two hundred years ago to favor slave holding states. I don't care that it helps better representation for smaller states. That logic makes perfect sense for enforcing adequate representation in congress - not for picking the President! Either we are all equal in the voting process or we are not. We can't claim one but practice the other. It may have been convenient historically but is no longer warranted in this day and age.

  1. Get involved for the next round of elections for congress. The clock is already ticking.

Finally, a personal note. I have lived in this country and prospered for almost forty years. I have been a citizen for over thirty of those years. I admit to having largely ignored politics during most of that time. I was too busy working, raising a family, and whatever else it is that normal people do. Mea culpa!

I voted this time. For the first time in my life. It mattered this time.

I voted for Hillary. But my vote didn't matter. I live in overwhelmingly blue California.

Simultaneously, and perhaps fortuitously, I've also been reading several books on US history, about the creation of the republic, and about the founding fathers. Believe me. They were no saints, either. But they rose above their petty personal differences because they believed in an ideal. The ideal that the government of the people, by the people, is the only just form of government. In the long run, I believe, they have proven themselves correct.

I have already lived through a monarchy turned dictatorship, I’ve lived through anarchy (before fleeing a theocracy), and I’ve lived in a democracy. I bet you won't have much trouble figuring out which one I prefer, in the long run.

Yes, maybe Bernie would have won. Maybe he could have won. But that's beside the point. We, the people, didn't vote for him. Besides, the result would be exactly the same as what we have today. Just reverse the two halves of the population and their reactions. And he would have been totally blocked by a republican congress.

So, instead of complaining, let's engage in the political discussion. I know the most obvious reaction is to clam up and say “not my president”, “not my congress”, “not my government”; but, right now that is the worst thing we could possibly do. Yes, it will take time away from other precious objectives but I think it is required of us. If we are serious about this government by the people thing, anyway.